The Waratahs’ run home to the play-offs has been given a boost with scans revealing Izaia Perese’s knee injury is not as bad as first thought.
Still digesting his side’s second-half slump against the Hurricanes on Saturday night and contemplating resting some key forwards, NSW coach Darren Coleman was pleased to report his star centre could be available for a likely qualifying finals clash in three weeks’ time.
Perese picked up a medial ligament strain in the Waratahs’ 22-18 loss at Leichhardt Oval, leaving the field as his team crumbled under the pressure of a revitalised Hurricanes.
The loss all but ended the Waratahs’ hopes of hosting a qualifying final in Sydney, with the Chiefs’ last-gap win over the Rebels bumping NSW down to sixth spot. Perese’s injury added further pain.
But a Sunday morning call from the doctor brought hopeful news, confirming a grade three strain with a four- to six-week lay-off. That’s a positive for NSW and the Wallabies, with England set to arrive on Australian shores next month.
“The doctor said it was not as bad a medial strain as Harry (Johnson-Holmes)’s and we’re going to push hard for him to be back for the play-offs,” Coleman said. “It’s a four to six week injury and if Izzy has a good rehab it could be a three-week injury.”
“Our goal now is to get us to the semis fresh and in the best possible shape to win that.”
The Waratahs will have to head to Dunedin to face the Highlanders on Sunday without the powerhouse centre, and defend Leichhardt Oval against the competition-leading Blues in the final regular round game.
But with a home qualifier taken off the table by the Chiefs win Coleman moved quickly on to giving his side the best chance of winning the knockouts.
“Our goal now is to get us to the semis fresh and in the best possible shape to win that,” he said. “Whether you finish fifth or eighth you’re going to be playing away and a 75 per cent chance to be playing away in New Zealand. We’ve got to work on a few aspects of our game and freshen up a few of our guys who’ve been carrying a lot of the load.”
Sensing some fatigue, he has given the playing group Sunday and Monday off, and will likely rest workhorse forwards Jed Holloway and Charlie Gamble this week.
It’s a tactic Coleman has reached for only once this season, rotating Holloway and prop Angus Bell through the bench for the round six match against Queensland, sensing crucial points on offer against the Drua a week later.
The NSW coach is wary of sending unintended messages to opposition teams, not to mention his own group, but feels the absence of two of the pack’s leading lights will be mitigated by the likely return of Michael Hooper from injury and Ned Hanigan from Japan.
Hooper must still clear head injury protocols but Coleman is confident – again – that his Test flanker will be good to go for a tough travel week. The Waratahs will have to fly to Dunedin via Christchurch on Friday, before returning home to host the Blues at Leichhardt the following week.
The NSW coach has some thinking to do, on consistently poor third quarters and how to keep his group up after so much was riding on winning in Sydney and securing a home play-off.
“I thought I was doing that well going into the Moana game after the Crusaders win but then we went down 17-0 and had to claw it back, so I’ll revisit that,” he said.
“It’s a rollercoaster. You feel like you can conquer the world there when you’re 15-0 up, then [the Hurricanes] get momentum, Izaia gets injured, you get beaten by a New Zealand team and now we’ve got to go to New Zealand and do it all again.
“I rely a lot on emotional energy as a coach and it’s helped to date but as the team grows and I grow, we’ve got to win games of footy with consistency and competency rather than emotional energy.”
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